Thursday, August 4, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we remember the Chautauqua camps that blended sacred and secular mass culture in the 19th century.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 4th of August 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

There are no quizzes on this show. Or, if there is one, I will ask you to grade your own paper and keep your score to yourself.

If I took you back to the 19th century in America and asked you where we might find some peculiar communities- broadly identifying as Christian- blending mass culture with the secular and sacred, where might we be going on the map?

If you guessed Western New York (home of the Oneida Community, the shakers, Mormons, Millerites, etc.), you would be correct. What Southern California would do for peculiar religious movements in the next century, Western New York would do in the previous century. Today we are going to look at one of the more popular movements to come out of that area that, with a few exceptions, disappeared as fast as it rose to prominence.

It was on this, the 4th of August in 1874, that the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly first opened. The Movement began a year earlier when businessman Lewis Miller and Methodist minister John Hyl Vincent rented the site of a Methodist camp on the banks of the Chautauqua to put on a kind of summer school for Sunday school teachers. It would be part summer camp, part revival, part theatre, and traveling concert, a kind of mass culture club that would replicate across the United States until World War I, the Depression, and new forms of mass media retired this curious blend of sacred and secular summer camp.

Teddy Roosevelt famously said that the Chautauqua circuit was the most “American thing in America.” A popular speaker on the circuit was William Jennings Bryan, who said of the summer camp/Sunday school that it was a “potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation”. You might not be surprised that Sinclair Lewis thought they were nothing but “wind and chaff… and the laughter of yokels”. Here we see the urban and rural divided on what good could come out of these religious and quasi-religious meetings.

The camp that began for the first time on this day in 1874 would become a regular speakers circuit for those not in the growing metropolitan centers. If you were in places like Waxahachie, Texas, Petoskey, MI, Chagrin Falls, OH, or Paw Paw, WV, you could spend 3- 7 days with a collection of sermons, lectures, songs, and theatre performances. It was a curious blend of old-time religion but with a secular bent- this was the mass culture in the 19th century. One actor said of the audiences, “these people are God-fearing, God-loving- they know their Shakespeare and Bible.”

One of the things I find most fascinating about this popular traveling show was the populist nature of it that could not be recreated with the Fundamentalist/Modernist schism of the next century. Before the Great Depression, there would be Chautauqua communities in 45 states that performed to an estimated 45 million people. Sure, Sinclair Lewis could deride this as the “yokel.” Still, before affordable mass communication, there was no more common mass cultural event outside of the church than a Chautauqua meeting.

In some ways, it marks the end of the prominence of the same spirit that brought about the Great Awakenings and Camp revival meetings. We see in them a rather comfortable blend of the sacred and secular- in fact, this distinction between the two would be more of a 20th-century invention in American mass culture.

So- here’s to the 148th anniversary of the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly meeting on the banks of the Chautauqua in Western New York on this day in 1874.

The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Romans 9:

6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 8 In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of August 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose forthcoming bluegrass album is called “Wind, Chaff, and the Laughter of Yokels”- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who hopes that we at least get better flooring after all of this…. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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